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Belgium may extend euthanasia laws to terminally ill children

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In the United States, physician assisted suicide, or euthanasia, is a hotly contested topic. In Belgium, on the other hand, they're about to give the euthanasia option to kids.

A piece of legislation currently up for debate in the Belgian House of Representatives may give terminally-ill children of any age the right to die, if they are facing "a hopeless medical situation of constant and unbearable suffering that cannot be eased and which will cause death in the short-term."

This bill isn't quite as controversial in Belgium as you might think. When the Senate initially voted on the bill, it passed by a margin the United States Congress could only dream of. Seventy-one Senators voted in favor of the proposal, while a mere 17 voted against it. More to the point, a staggering 75% of Belgians supported the measure.

One proponent of the law put the case like this: "If you go to a geriatric ward, patients with the same quality of life and the same life expectancy as a 6-year-old with bone cancer, you wouldn't let them suffer," she said. "When they ask you to go, you'd let them go."

Of course, opponents of the bill claim that children can't possibly comprehend what it means to ask for death. They worry that children, wracked with constant pain or seeing the exhaustion on their parents' faces or hearing their low chances of survival, may opt for physician-assisted death as opposed to the alternative.

In response, a group of pediatricians explained, "Experience shows us that in cases of serious illness and imminent death, minors develop very quickly a great maturity, to the point where they are often better able to reflect and express themselves on life than healthy people."

Of course the debate is compounded by the fact that children are not adults. They need protection and guidance, and they're universally deemed unable to make their own choices. Parents won't let their children pick what they wear to school, why should they allow their children to make a case for their own demise?

It's not even really as simple as a sick kid saying it's time to go and having a doctor pull the plug. Children must be determined to have the, "capacity of discernment and be conscious at the moment of the request." Further, the approval of parents, physicians and a mental health professional are all required to move forward with the procedure.

These steps may be intended to help calm the anger of opponents to the bill, but the vocal minority claims that the measure isn't even necessary, since Belgium allows for "palliative sedation," a practice which allows physicians to increase pain medication to "the point of eventual death." Why all the hubbub to get kiddie euthanasia okayed, then? Because palliative sedation is expensive; euthanasia is not.

That might lend a little bit of gravity to the argument proffered by conservative Christians (yep, they have those in Belgium, too - and they're just as noisy as ours). Outspoken activist Rik Torfs claims that the bill is a result of the decline of religious faith. "In the past," Torfs says, "people were very Catholic and they thought, 'OK, we are not living nice days over here but after our death, everything will be beautiful. Now they are saying, 'OK, nothing will happen afterward, so try to construct a happy end, which means a death controlled by ourselves.'

This debate isn't new to the area. Since 2005, the Netherlands has allowed children over the age of 12 the right to die. Belgium's proposal just takes the measure one step further by removing any age restrictions. It's expected that between "10 to 15 gravely ill Belgian children annually will invoke the law."

Belgium's right to die laws have become increasingly popular in the last several years. In 2012, for example, 1,432 cases of euthanasia were logged, an uptick of 25 percent over the previous year. These cases represented two percent of all deaths.

Belgium is one of four places in the world that allows euthanasia. In addition to the Netherlands, Switzerland and Oregon allow physician-assisted suicide.

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